“The Top Shelf” by Kim Chinquee

Well, hey there, stranger! It’s a been a while since I’ve posted on Story366—May 9, to be exact—which in my calculation is over six months ago. I never planned on taking such a big break, and have, just about every day, thought about picking up a new collection and doing a post. I just … didn’t. I’ve even had today’s book in my laptop case since summer, since before a big family vacation, meaning this book went with me to a dozen or so states without me cracking the spine. Again, I never foresaw such a leave of absence, but hey now, since I was 366 for 366 last year, whoever said this year is about planning?

I come to you today somewhat because my grades for the fall semester have been turned in, meaning I’m embarking on a month off from my professor gig. I’d like to get a good start on things, set up some good habits, and since I don’t think I’ll be traveling this next month—Christmas in Missouri!—I should be able to settle into some kind of routine. I have a lot of collections to read and write about, so I hope to do more of these before the spring semester starts (and if you have a new story collection you’d like me to write about here, please drop me a line so I can tell you how to get me that book).

Oh, I also got the calendar alert that it’s Kim’s birthday tomorrow, though I thought originally it said it was today, which lit a fire under me, putting the idea my head to do this post.

It’s tempting, after so much time away, to play catch up, tell my Story366 readers where I’ve been, but I don’t think anyone’s too concerned about that. Still, here’s a rundown of my activities since May 9: I started running every day. I dedicated a lot of time to fixing up our house, especially the outside, which resulted in a killer garden. The fam and I headed west for two weeks, visiting six National Parks, Disneyland sandwiched in-between. I worked at thirty-one Cubs’ games, including two rounds of playoffs. I went camping with the Boy Scouts a couple of times and have found myself in a minor leader role. I can vividly picture what my wife, kids, and cat look like. I make eggs every morning.

I’ve led a full life.

Back to short stories.

I’ve known Kim Chinquee and her work for a long time now. Both of us are alum of the University of Illinois, which is how I think we started talking to each other. Both of us were on the job market at relatively the same time (probably in direct competition for a while). Both of us publish in literary magazines fairly often. Both of us go to AWP every year and run into each other. So, I know Kim, you know, from the block (but not from writer’s block). Along the way, I’ve had the pleasure of reading quite a few of her shorts, short stories, and books, so I was more than happy to hear about Veer coming out this past May (from Ravenna Press) and to obtain a copy for this project.

Veer is a book of shorts, save one normal-length story, and is cut into five parts. The first three parts have a long series of shorts, the fourth part is comprised entirely of that normal-length story, then Part Five has more shorts. I read a handful of stories from each section, wanting to get a good feel of the entire book to write this post, and tried to figure out how Chinquee split things up. At first glance, it seems like the stories in the first three sections are thematically linked to each other—most all of them involve sexual encounters of some kind—while the final part seems to delve into other notions. If I read the entire book, I could perhaps see the method to her delineations, but I can say this for sure: The stories in each part have appeared in different magazines; the acknowledgments on the colophon tell that the stories in Part One were in Noon, the stories in Part Two in Denver Quarterly, etc.; from what I can surmise, that means that all thirty-nine stories—39!—from Part One appeared in Noon. Either Diane Williams really likes Chinquee’s work (the likely case) or Kim gave her a kidney (hard to tell without asking). Either way, I’ve never seen a book sectioned off by where the stories (or poems or whathaveyou) were published—though that would make sense if there’s a deeper connection I’m missing.

A collection that features so many stories makes it hard to choose just one to write about, so I’ll cop out and go with the lead piece, “The Top Shelf.” This story, at less than three pages, sticks in my head for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it features one of the longer narratives of any of the pieces I’ve read. Secondly, it’s got a weirdish premise—mother and daughter pick up guys together at a bar—and I like weirdish. Lastly, it incorporates Chinquee’s themes as well as any other story, so it’s kind of easy to talk about.

“The Top Shelf” is about a woman who’s about to ship off to Basic Training, so her mom takes her out to a bar for some drinks, even though she’s not old enough, Mom convincing the bouncers because she’s a regular (very regular, we find out). Soon—like within half a page down—Mom has eased up to an older gentleman named George, while George’s pal, the equally older Tom, takes a shine to our protagonist and narrator. Before we know it, George invites the ladies to his hotel room for some drinks and the ladies oblige.

From there, things get heated and get heated quickly. George makes some bloody Marys, he and Mom start to get busy on his bed, so Tom suggests to our hero that they take a walk, give the new lovers the room to themselves. At this point, I’m thinking that Tom is maybe more of a decent guy, i.e., he’s not going to try to bed this young woman because, you know, ewww. But I’m wrong: Tom and the protagonist go at it in the stairway as soon as they leave the room, and, well, yeah. That gives away an awful lot, but as I said, this is a short and these early stories feature sexual encounters, so, if you want surprise, there’s seventy or so other stories in the book to read to find out if the characters did it with each other or not.

Of course, to say this story is about the sexual encounter would be trivializing Chinquee’s talent, style, and efforts. Sure, most of the protagonists in the stories I read had sex over the course of the story, but I think Veer isn’t really about the sex, but the repercussions of the sex. No, scratch that: I can’t say this story, or this book, is about what happens to people who have questionable sexual encounters, as really, the stories are too short for Chinquee to reveal that; the author tends to end on an image, a line of dialogue, a turn of a more subtle nature. We don’t know what happens to the woman telling us her story in “The Top Shelf” after she and her mother leave the Holiday Inn, after she goes off to Basic, what she thinks about, how the encounter with Tom affects her, short term or long term. I think the point of this book is that we don’t have to: After so many stories featuring regrettable encounters—and this stairwell tryst is certainly one of the more consensual affairs—the book seems to be about how easy it is for these incidents to happen, how common they are, and Chinquee gets that point across not only in the individual stories, but through repetition, telling us about them, time after time after time. It’s really easy for a young woman to get coerced, be it via rape or this scenario here in “The Top Shelf,” than it’s pleasurable to say. And here in 2017, with the daily revelations about our politicians, journalists, and celebrities committing so many atrocities, can any book have been more relevant, a more fitting choice with which to jump back into this project?

Still, that’s not to say that every character in every story is a victim. They’re not—it would be ignorant to paint every woman who has sex as a victim, as certainly, many of Chinquee’s characters make a choice. And some of the stories don’t even involve sex. I should also mention that in several of the stories, Chinquee herself seems to be the narrator, referring to herself in the most direct metafictional ways, as Kim Chinquee. After reading twenty-five stories, though, I see a theme, the feel that I take from Veer.

I’ve always been a fan of Kim Chinquee’s writing, not only her stories, but her technical proficiency, her imagery, the way she strings together one poignant sentence after another. Veer is a powerful book, and oftentimes, a sad book, but it’s gorgeously written, and has been worth carrying around in my bag all these months (as if it’s my Catcher in the Rye, minus the assassination attempts). Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’ve read Chinquee before. Whether you have or haven’t, Veer is an experience, a treat.